F.C.’s Teams Dazzle at Raucous FIRST LEGO State Competition

By Richard & Jonah Sine

THE SPACE DONUTS watch in light-hearted agony as their team’s LEGO robot fails to follow its human controllers. (Photo: Courtesy Letty Hardi)

How surprised was coach Ben Morris when his FIRST LEGO League team won the regional competition last month and moved onto the next step? “I didn’t even know there was a next step,” quipped Morris.

But there was. Space Donuts coach Morris, two other first-time coaches and eight first-time Thomas Jefferson Elementary School students traveled to Harrisonburg, Va. for the state championships last weekend. Organizers of the event hosted by James Madison University said it was the largest of its kind in the world, attracting 108 teams from around the state.

The Space Donuts did not place, but the other Falls Church team to make it to States did exceptionally well. The seven Mary Ellen Henderson Robo Tigers won first place in mechanical design and third place in robot performance in their division.

The competition’s theme was “Into Orbit,” so the Space Donuts made a presentation describing how astronauts could escape the stress of space travel by entering virtual reality.

Then they showed off their skills at programming pint-sized LEGO-built robots to pull off tricky “missions” like angling tiny solar arrays or dropping a tiny astronaut into an “airlock chamber” within strict time limits.

The robot games themselves were a rousing hybrid of sporting event and lab experiment, with a dash of Renaissance Faire thrown in. The robots whirred around on pool-table-sized arenas crowded with kids and adults, jumping for joy or covering their eyes. There were cheers, tears, timers, buzzers and live commentary. Judges and some players donned jester or Dr. Seuss hats, per league tradition.

In the halls, thousands of kids and parents milled about, wolfing Krispy Kremes and fretting over the latest adjustment to their robots or programs.

THE ROBO TIGERS, on the flip side, were able to guide their creation to a first place finish in mechanical design. (Photo: Courtesy Nicholas Draper)

For the Space Donuts, it was a sensor that the kids miraculously fixed between the first and second round of competition to boost their final score.

The unexpected win at the regional trials at George Mason High School spurred the team into high gear, with kids moving to twice-a-week practices. As usual for such competitions, the real heroes were the coaches, volunteering countless hours to enrich the lives of other peoples’ children. Coach Jessica Scheer contends that it was worth it.

“The kids have such enthusiasm,” Scheer said. “You see the excitement on their faces when they figure out a problem or learn something in their research. You don’t see that so often with adults.”

The coaches also recruited real-life experts to help the kids prepare the presentations.

They included three NASA scientists and a psychologist with the Federal Bureau of Prisons (because space is confining too). Along the way the kids learned valuable lessons about teamwork and sportsmanship. They also learned a lot about engineering, an extremely important subject that doesn’t get a lot of play in elementary school.

For his day job, coach Lucas Hardi is a video-game designer with substantial programming experience. But he says neither he nor the team was quite prepared for the unique challenge of building an autonomous robot. “A lot of engineering is based on trial and error,” Hardi said. “In FIRST LEGO League kids get a chance to fail — a lot — and it’s OK.”

The Space Donuts were composed of Dylan Bintorio, Griffin Hardi, Oliver Hardi, Leo Morris, James Rude, Rhys Scheer, J.P. Tysse and Jonah Sine.

The triumphant Robo Tigers were composed of Anand Colby, Christopher Draper, Alex Vennebush, Elena Clark-Wilson, Eli Vennebush, Sicily Smith and Mya Taheri. The coach was Nicholas Draper.